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Katherine Martinelli

Toddler Discipline: Why Toddlers Act Out and What You Can Do About It

Toddlers can try the patience of the most saintly of parents. Here’s what’s likely behind their behavior and how to approach toddler discipline.

Sometimes it can feel like toddlers were specifically designed to test our limits and push our buttons. It can be a bit of a shock when even an easygoing baby transforms into an aggressive toddler, or one whose only words seem to be “no” and “mine.”

Like everything else in parenting, there’s no roadmap when it comes to toddler discipline, but while figuring out what clicks with your kid and your parenting style is a trial-and-error process, understanding why little kids act out can help you to decide how to handle it. Here, we get the lowdown from experts on the whys behind that temper tantrum and how positive discipline for toddlers can help address that “bad” toddler behavior.

The Reasons Behind ‘Bad’ Toddler Behavior

Negative toddler behavior comes in all forms, including tantrums, biting, hitting, not sharing, lack of emotional regulation and not following directions. As frustrating as it can be, it’s important to understand that little kids aren’t acting out to be jerks; more often than not, there are good reasons behind their behaviors, and understanding them can be the key to positive change.

So why do toddlers engage in challenging behaviors? “It’s because their brains aren’t fully developed yet, and they’re using the best tools they can find in the moment to cope with their feelings (which they feel so intensely!),” explains Jen Lumanlan, MS, MEd, host of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. She says we often pay attention to our child’s behavior, when really we should be examining why our toddler is engaging in that behavior. “We focus on disciplining (or punishing) the child for exhibiting the behavior but never actually address the underlying need—which might be more connection time with us, more independence or something we would never have considered if we’d never asked them.”

A few reasons for ‘bad’ toddler behavior include:

They’re learning the rules. When toddlers act out, they’re testing the limits—not (just) of our patience, but of the world around them. They’re learning the rules of their home and society and seeing what’s acceptable and what isn’t. “As adults we know what’s expected of us because we’ve already learned through many of the same channels,” says Sharon Somekh, MD, a pediatrician and host of The Raiseology podcast. “We know we need to show up for work on time because that one time we were late, our boss expressed to us that it was unacceptable. Our children are testing limits to learn what the expected behaviors are and what the consequences will be.”

They’re still developing receptive language. Kayla O’Neill, MEd, creator of Parenting Expert to Mom, says one of the most common frustrations she hears from parents is that their toddlers don’t listen. “Keep in mind, toddlers are still learning how to process language and also have very short attention spans,” she says. If you say “stop jumping on the couch,” they may not hear the word stop, or they may shut down their processing as a fear response if you’re yelling. O’Neill says to be conscious of how you’re talking to your toddler and to keep your language short and precise.

Their communication is limited. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if you knew exactly what you wanted but no one around you could understand a thing you were trying to say? Well, that’s how toddlers—especially pre-verbal ones—feel a lot of the time. “When a child wants a toy from a friend but can’t express it, they may start out with gestures that are often missed or not understood by the other party,” Somekh says. “At that point, the child may become frustrated at the lack of response and resort to grabbing, hitting or tantruming in an effort to get the attention they’re seeking.”

We have high expectations. Sometimes we might just be asking too much of our little ones. “Parents oftentimes have very high expectations of their toddlers. They want them to be able to sit and listen more than they’re actually capable of doing,” O’Neill says. “When parenting a toddler, it’s important to remember they’re learning ALL the rules for the first time. We need to be patient while they figure things out.”

Tips for How to Discipline a Toddler

Rather than thinking about how to punish your child for their behaviors, consider how you might be able to prevent them, redirect and teach positive behaviors instead. Here, the experts share some toddler discipline tips to try.

Have one-on-one time. Michelle Kenney Carlson of Peace & Parenting is a parenting coach certified in the Hand in Hand parenting method. She recommends building into your daily routine a chance to connect with your child with “Special Time.” That means putting away your phone and all distractions and spending 20 minutes completely and fully focused on your child, and following their lead in play. “Pour into them and make it feel special,” she advises. This may sound simple, but the effect, Carlson says, can be profound. “We use Special Time as a way to fill up their cup and help their brain work better so they can utilize better judgment and be more flexible,” she says. When this becomes a regular practice, Carlson has seen reduced tantrums and fewer “sticky” situations.

Anticipate problems. After a while, chances are you’ll have a pretty good sense of what situations tend to trigger negative behavior for your toddler, so try to address the problem before it happens. “For example, if you know leaving a friend’s house after a play date is likely to cause frustration and tantruming, discuss the behavior you expect with your child even before you go to the play date,” Somekh says. “Set up a system of a few minute warning and a timer and implement it.”

Stay calm. Anyone who has parented a toddler can tell you they’ve lost it at one point or another, but try to stay collected and not take your child’s difficult behavior personally (we know: so hard). “It’ll help you to respond more calmly,” Somekh says. “When you respond calmly, your children are more receptive.”

Address the problem and move on. If you’re dealing with toddler hitting or toddler biting, often the best you can do until they gain control of their impulses is to calmly let them know it’s not okay. Lumanlan suggests saying something along the lines of “I don’t want you to hit/bite me. That hurts me. I’m going to move over here to keep my body safe.” She also says some kids may have more of a sensory need to engage in those types of behaviors, so if they persist you may also want to try redirecting them to hit a pillow or bite a teething ring.

Reinforce positive behavior. Rather than focusing on chiding negative toddler behavior, be sure to also praise positive behavior. “One of the best methods to prevent unwanted toddler behaviors is for parents to take time to teach their child what they want them to do instead of just punishing them for what they’ve done,” O’Neill says. “This could mean teaching them how to play with their toys appropriately by showing them how and using positive praise to reinforce it.”

Listen. There’s a good explanation for why “reasons my toddler is crying” has become a meme. Sometimes it’s just so irrational that the only thing we can do is make light of the situation (you know, when they ask you to cut their strawberries then have a tantrum because you cut their strawberries). Carlson says no matter how irrational, the best thing parents can do when a child tantrums is to “listen with kindness, never leaving them when they’re upset and trying to see things from their side.” Listening and empathizing fosters connection, which makes our kids feel all the more supported, which in turn can make parenting easier.

Offer choices. Instead of simply telling your child what they shouldn’t be doing, give them choices for things they can do, O’Neill suggests. For example, if you don’t want them jumping on the couch, tell them they can either frog hop on the floor or sit on the couch instead. An older toddler may be able to help brainstorm alternate activities to release that energy that are safer and less destructive than jumping on the couch. Very often, young children need more time than they’re given to run, play and be active, so coming up with ways to help them use their energy in healthy, fun ways can be helpful for all.

Give in. This may sound totally counter-intuitive, but Lumanlan says there are instances when giving in to your child can actually be an effective strategy. For example, if your kid is freaking out about wanting ice cream right before bedtime, they “literally don’t have the brain structures in place to engage in logical reasoning yet,” she explains. So they resort to the only (primitive) tools they have—crying and flailing. Lumanlan says rather than engaging in a power struggle they probably won’t understand in that moment, you may want to give them a teaspoon of ice cream. “Then you can start to scaffold the child’s ability to problem solve with you.”

Take turns rather than share. When our kids don’t share, it can cause all sorts of conflicts on the playground, in the classroom or with siblings. But what if we shouldn’t be telling our kids to share? As Lumanlan describes, toddlers’ understanding of fairness is still developing, and they also have little concept of time and live in the moment. “When you force them to give a toy they’re playing with to another child, they can’t see far enough ahead in time to imagine when they’re going to get it back,” she says. “When a parent says ‘share,’ from the child’s perspective that sounds like ‘give up that toy you really like!’” Instead of demanding that children share, Lumanlan says young kids have an easier time understanding the concept of taking turns.

Role play. Incorporating problem solving strategies into pretend play can be a fun and effective method of toddler discipline. Kids love to act out situations, and parents can use it as a way to practice brainstorming different responses and ways of avoiding conflicts. “Your children don’t need to be verbal to understand much of this, and the more often you use this technique and the more habitual it becomes, they will really understand it,” Somekh says.

At the end of the day, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to toddler discipline, but positive discipline for toddlers is a much more effective approach than punishment. Parents are the ultimate role models, so things like toddler spanking only reinforce the idea that hitting is acceptable. Lumanlan says she finds it useful to consider what she’d do if her partner acted like her toddler. “Parents might commonly discipline their child for ‘acting out’ or answering back or not doing something they’ve been asked to do. If my partner did one of these things, I wouldn’t think ‘How can I discipline him?” but “what’s going on with him? Why is he doing this?’”

Similarly, O’Neill encourages parents to remember that children learn the same way adults do. “If we make a mistake at our jobs, does the boss put us in time out?” she asks.

Of course, if your toddler’s behavior is particularly egregious or persistent, it’s always worth checking in with your pediatrician as there could be something else going on. If your child is really pressing your buttons to the point where you feel like you may harm them or yourself, seek help immediately.

Published February 2019

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